Gaddafi rejects Lockerbie trial deal

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THE DEAL to try the Lockerbie bombing suspects in a neutral country was rejected yesterday by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader.

In a speech marking the 29th anniversary of the coup that brought him to power, Col Gaddafi refused to accept the deal brokered through the United Nations without guarantees of the safety of the two men.

He accused Britain and United States of making the proposed neutral country, the Netherlands, a "transit point" for transferring the accused to Britain. The Libyan leader said he could accept an agreement only if Holland was "the last stop" for the men - Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi and Lamen Khalifa Fhimah - whether found guilty or innocent.

"We are prepared to go tomorrow to the Netherlands, provided that the Netherlands is the last stop in case of acquittal or conviction ... guarantees to that effect are necessary," he said.

But Professor Robert Black, the legal expert who first proposed trial in a neutral country, expressed surprise at the new objections raised by Col Gaddafi.

Professor Black suggested in January 1994 that such a deal could break the deadlocked negotiations over a prosecution. and he and Dr Jim Swire, whose daughter died in the bombing, held talks with the Libyans. The professor said yesterday that Col Gaddafi had always known that the men would serve their sentence in Scotland, if convicted. "I suspect that this is a negotiating tactic. One of the things you do in negotiations is you start from a position you don't ultimately expect to maintain," he said.

The British and American governments, who opposed the idea for many years, last month suggested the men should be tried in the Netherlands by a panel of Scottish judges under Scottish law. The idea was backed by a United Nations Security Council resolution.

Professor Black said it was the composition of the panel of judges that was the sticking point, not where any sentence might be served.

"What the Libyans had agreed to was an international panel chaired by a Scottish judge. This issue is the major issue," he said.

Alistair Duff, the Scottish lawyer who is representing the accused, said the colonel's speech highlighted legitimate concerns from Libya about aspects of the agreement.

"It sounds to me as if what he is saying is that in principle the idea of a trial in The Hague is not unacceptable, but there needs to be clear guarantees and assurances about the risk of extradition - passing the two on to some other country once they are in The Hague.

"What he is probably saying is that more specific clear guarantees need to be there," he said.

Mr Duff travels to Libya this week and expects that the men will decide whether they accept the deal.

A Foreign Office spokesman said the offer was made through the United Nations, and the British Government could not negotiate on it.

The spokesman made clear that, if acquitted, the men could return to Libya in safety.

As United Nations resolutions apply to countries, not individuals, the British Gov- ernment believes the final decision rests with the Libyan leader, not the suspects.

Mr Swire, a spokesman for relatives of British victims, said the men must serve their sentences in Britain, if convicted.

"I think what Colonel Gaddafi is hinting at here is that he doesn't like the idea of his citizens being imprisoned in Scotland."